Years ago, I learned in Sunday School, as well as and from my parents, that it’s a sin to take the Lord’s name in vain. After all, Exodus 20:7 (KJV)—also known as the Third Commandment—tells us “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain….” The Good News Translation says, “Do not use My name for evil purposes.” But what does that really mean?
First of all, what is the Lord’s name? Simply put, that includes all the names that we use to refer to our Maker—God, Lord, Jesus, and Christ, to name a few. And the phrase “in vain” translates as futile, empty pointless, or wasted. In his article, “How We Take God’s Name in Vain,” John Piper gives more clarification:
“When the heart is emptied of affections for God, and words are emptied of the truth of God, all thoughts, all words, all emotions, and all actions are empty, pointless, futile, and in vain. Therefore, to take the name of God in vain is to take up some expression of God’s reality into our thoughts or emotions or words or actions when the truth of God has gone out of them, and true affections for God are missing.”
In plain English, we are using God’s name in vain when we speak the word “God” (or any of His other names) with no regard to who He is, or when we use His name casually or irreverently. Saying, “Jesus Christ!” as an exclamation of surprise is one example. And of course, the frequently-heard curse which uses God’s name is included in the big list of no-no’s. But it also includes phrases that we don’t really think about such as, “Oh my God!” or “Good Lord!” For those of us who are text-savvy, does OMG amount to the same thing? Does it carry the same weight? The short answer, in my opinion, is yes.
In addition to the instruction in the 3rd Commandment, there are other reasons to curb our language. In the article, “Is Cursing Really That Big of a Sin?” author Blair Parke outlines three additional reasons that we should be mindful of our language. First, cursing ruins our witness of Jesus and it dishonors God. It’s hard to convince others that God is holy when our language says otherwise.
Second, cursing doesn’t “lift up” either the speaker or the audience. In Ephesians 4:29 (NIV), the Apostle Paul states, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” The language litmus test is whether or not our words are helpful or harmful. Helpful good. Harmful bad.
And a third reason to control our tongues, according to Parke, is because cursing creates an open door to more sinning. Cursing is a “gateway drug,” if you will, that numbs our sensibilities to what is acceptable. If we assume that cursing is ok, then what else can the devil convince us is also acceptable?
In James 1:26, James writes that if we consider ourselves “religious,” but we don’t control our mouths, our religion is worthless. In his letter to Timothy, Paul writes that we must “avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly.” (2 Timothy 2:16)
What’s the ultimate reason to be mindful of our words? Jesus himself lays down the law, so to speak, in Matthew 12:36-37, when He states, “…I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgement for every empty word spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Are we speaking empty words? Are we telling coarse jokes and using filthy language? Are we participating in godless chatter? Is our language ruining our witness of Jesus? I’d love to tell you that my personal answer to all of these questions is no, but, sadly, I would not be speaking the truth.
Back in ancient times (over 50 years ago), there was a very popular series in Reader’s Digest called “I Am Joe’s Body,” by John D. Ratcliff. Each month, in Mrs. Sumrall’s 7th grade science class, she shared the most recent publication with our class. “Joe” was a 47-year-old man, and each article was narrated in first person by one of his body parts. They were all titled in the same vein—”I Am Joe’s Heart,” “I Am Joe’s Liver,” “I Am Joe’s Lungs,” etc.—and the series took us on a guided tour of Joe’s body, with each body part reporting how it functioned and what could go wrong.
As I recalled the “Joe series,” I imagined an article called “I Am Joe’s Foul Mouth.” We could see what comes out of Joe’s mouth when he sees something uplifting or when he hears something offensive. We could follow Joe’s soul after his heart stops beating and hear the conversation between Joe’s soul and St. Peter.
Maybe you have control of your tongue, but have you ever been around someone (Joe, for example), whose language makes you uncomfortable? The very act of listening to Joe makes you feel guilty of something. He may not be taking the Lord’s name in vain, but he’s using coarse language or telling stories that would make your grandma blush.
So how do we go about re-training ourselves to speak as we should? How do we build up one another with our language? Guess what? The Bible has great advice. Here’s the short answer: pray and study the Scriptures! Here are a few verses to get you started:
“Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.” (Psalm 141:3)
There should be no “…obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place….” (Ephesians 5:4)
“May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” (Psalm 19:14)
Are you clean and sparkly on the outside as well as on the inside, or do you only say and do “the right stuff” only when you’re in public? Don’t beat yourself up if your answer is no—we’re all guilty of imperfection. And while there’s no handy Reader’s Digest series about Joe’s foul mouth, there is a comprehensive guidebook known as the Holy Bible which gives even better advice. Just ask Joe.
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